A particularly poignant scene of arm wrestling between protagonist Gunjan Saxena (played by actor Janhvi Kapoor) and her male colleague summarized the tone of a recent film that seeks to capture Saxena’s life in the Indian Air Force (IAF): women are physically weak, and hence incapable of protecting the country. Ever since “Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl” hit Netflix India last month, it has been mired in controversy. Many in, and close to, the armed forces of India believe it wrongly portrays the gender dynamics in the IAF.
It is indeed debatable how authentic the film is. Yet, the biopic does raise important questions about gender equality in the Indian armed forces.
Historians and those who have studied the Indian military closely maintain that since the time of women’s induction in 1992, gender relations in the armed forces have not been a smooth affair. “In my personal view, it was not a well thought out induction. Initially it was more of a token measure,” said military historian and IAF veteran Rana Chhina in a telephone interview. “Had it been better planned, we would not have faced the kind of scenario in which women officers have had to negotiate at every step, [in] what should have been a natural progression in this service,” he added.
The debates around women in the Indian military are rather striking, given that tales of women donning armor are not only an intrinsic part of Indian mythology, but were also very much a part of historical reality in India prior to independence.
The Pre-Independence Story
The two world wars brought with them the strongest impetus for admitting women into the armed forces, not just in India but across the world. “The demands of industrialization and the war effort totally transformed the roles of women as they acquired relevant professional skills that were highly valued both in the civil and military spheres,” wrote Indian Army Captain Deepanjali Bakshi in her 2006 book, “In the Line of Fire: Women in the Armed Forces.”
On realizing the growing need for suitable hands in support duties during the Second World War, the British army decided to begin recruiting women in India. Consequently, the Women’s Auxiliary Corp-India (WAC-I) was created between March and April 1942. It was formed on the same principle as the women’s service in Britain, except that in India the WAC-I would work with both the army and the air force, unlike its British counterpart, which consisted of two separate women’s organizations.
“Recruitment into the corps was originally for ‘local service’ only which enabled the servicewomen to live at home,” wrote British military historian Alan Harfield in his article “The Women’s Auxiliary Corps-India.” He went on to note that given the increasing demand for WAC-I officers, the recruiting terms were changed later that year to include an option between “local” and “general” service.
Consequently, the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service (WRIN) was established in 1944 as the naval wing of the WAC-I, allowing women to fill shore-based jobs so that more men could be deployed at sea. Though women serving in the WRIN were not involved in combat roles, they played a significant role as they took up clerical roles, decoded secret messages and maintained equipment.
Emphasizing the eagerness with which women came forward to join WAC-I, Bakshi noted, “women from all classes of the society came forward and by the time the war ended, the corp had grown to the strength of 10,000 representing as many as 27 communities and speaking as many languages.” Following the end of the war, however, the WAC-I and WRIN were disbanded.
While on the one hand women were militarily involved in support of the British during the Second World War, there were also those who were mobilized to fight against the colonial power. In 1943, Bengali revolutionary Subhas Chandra Bose revived the Indian National Army (INA) in Southeast Asia. Fighting alongside imperial Japan, the INA’s objective was to free India from British rule by force. Having been nurtured by the spirit of nationalism prevalent in Bengal of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Bose was acquainted with several women whose acts of revolution had dramatically affected the sphere of Indian politics.
On July 9, 1943, while speaking in Padang, Indonesia, he said: “… I want … a unit of brave Indian women to form a death-defying Regiment who will wield the sword which Rani of Jhansi wielded in India’s First War of Independence in 1857.”
Lakshmi Sahgal, who heard Bose speak in Padang, was taken by his speech. Consequently, she visited many families, convincing women to break out of their traditional roles and join the INA in service of the nation. Thereafter, on July 12, 1943, Bose formed the all-women “Rani of Jhansi” regiment, naming it after Rani Laxmibai, whose revolt against the British in 1857 was, and remains, one of the most widely narrated story of female valor in the Indian subcontinent.
“The women who responded to Bose’s call to fight for Indian liberation were primarily teenage girls from rubber plantations in Malaya, girls who had never seen India but were nevertheless eager to volunteer at the risk of their lives in battle to see India freed,” wrote historian Joyce Lebra in her book “Women Against the Raj: The Rani of Jhansi Regiment.”
Once in the INA camp, the enlisted women were given complete physical training, including being made to endure long-route marches weighed down by sacks and rifles. Not only were they part of combat operations; they were also trained as nurses and in fundraising activities. Under Sahgal’s leadership, the regiment fought in campaigns against the British in Burma. The unit was disbanded after the defeat of the INA in Rangoon and the subsequent collapse of the provisional Indian government created by Bose.
Surprisingly, despite the many instances of valor exhibited by Indian women in the days preceding the country’s independence, the constitution of free India formally prohibited them from participation in the Indian armed forces. The Army Act of 1950, the Air Force Act of 1950 and the Navy Act of 1957 stipulated that women were not eligible for recruitment to the forces, and that any deviation from this rule could only take place through special notification.
“In any case after Independence, the armed forces were not a priority and the government wanted to cut back on finances meted towards them,” said Chhina, explaining the altered stance of the country towards gender and the armed forces. “But of course, it was a paternalistic approach.”
The only part of the armed forces that continued to welcome women was the “Military Nursing Service,” which was formed in 1880 under the British Raj. The nurses had fought valiantly in both world wars, and about 350 of them had either lost their lives, were missing in action, or were taken prisoners of war. The Army Act of 1950 formalized their roles, granting them regular commissions and ranks from lieutenant to colonel.
Disregarding the diktats of the administrations, several women had expressed their desire to be part of the armed forces, only to be dismissed on grounds of law. It was only in the early 1990s that the three services opened their doors to women. “It was hardly the result of a great organisational belief in equal opportunity or a pressing need to tap a new source of human resources. It was more a populist measure paying lip service to the ideas of being politically correct and emancipated in today’s progressive world,” wrote Bakshi.
In the beginning, women were only inducted into a short service commission of five years, and even then, only in specific branches and cadres. In the 30 years since, women in the military have had to battle it out at every stage. From seeking permanent commissions, to striving for combat positions, the journey has not been an easy one.
Speaking about her experience of gender relations in the IAF, retired Squadron Leader Vidula Abhyankar said “it was clear that we were not accepted.” The 41-year old, who served in the air force between 2003 and 2013, explained that protocols like standing up on the entry of a senior and saluting — strictly followed in case of male leaders — were conveniently overlooked when it came to women of comparable rank.
It is true that in the last three decades significant progress has been made when it comes to a more balanced gender representation in the Indian army. Women are now being inducted in many more branches of the armed forces and also hold key appointments in the IAF. In February this year, the Indian Supreme Court rendered a historic verdict when it announced that women officers in all branches of the army would now be eligible for permanent commission as well as command posts. “It is an insult to women as well as the army when aspersions are cast on women, their ability and their achievements in the Army,” the top court noted.
But this is only one aspect — the legal — of ensuring better representation of women in the Indian armed forces. In practical terms, much is left to be achieved. “We cannot simply wish away social realities. The state must of course adopt a line and say that any kind of inequality, based on gender, caste etc, needs to be eradicated. But that eradication has to be a gradual process,” said Chhina.
Abhyankar maintained that the problem needs to be addressed at the cradle of the armed forces: the National Defence Academy, where officer cadets from all three services are educated and which to the present day remains a male bastion. Moreover, the admission of girls in “Sainik Schools” (military secondary-education schools) commenced only recently, in 2017. “If entry level is the same for both genders,” she said, “then perhaps a sense of camaraderie and faith can be generated.”
Adrija Roychowdhury is a journalist based in New Delhi. She writes features on history, culture, and national and global politics.